The supersuit Michael Phelps will wear at the London Games this summer is a garment to marvel at – although not for the reasons you might think. It is an incredible feat of engineering, one that you can buy and try out for yourself.
Die-hard sport enthusiasts have always been glad to shell out for elite gear, and swimmers looking for a leg up on the competition can now get their hands on the same suits expected to break records at the Olympics, assuming, of course, they can squeeze themselves into it.
The entire FASTSKIN3 Racing System (which includes a hydrodynamic cap and goggles) makes the kind of scientific boasts made when talking about rockets or sports cars in wind tunnels. Speedo unveiled the system in November and began shipping orders this year. Its space-age design is certainly good news for athletes fighting to gain even a millisecond advantage over the competition. But for mere mortals who buy one of the super-elite systems, which retails for $535, the first wide-eyed moment of wonder will come when they take the suit out of its box and hold it up to their bodies. This is a compression garment like no other.
"They look like they're for the baby," my wife said of the trunks as I held them up.
Which brings us to the gloves. Every FASTSKIN3 swimsuit comes with a pair of them – thin white cotton gloves with rubberized finger tips. They're not meant to improve your front crawl – they're meant to help you pull the suit on.
U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte has said the suit makes him feel "superhuman." Typical recreational swimmers might feel more like 200 pounds of ground beef being squeezed into a sausage casing. Putting the suit on requires patience.
"It is a bit of a wrestle to get it up your body," says Dr. Tom Waller, head of Speedo's Aqualab, the company's research and development facility. "The first time you put it on [it will take]15 to 20 minutes, the second time five to 10." By the third, fourth and fifth time, "Most people can get it [on]in around five minutes."
If taking 15 minutes to squeeze into a swimsuit doesn't sound like a lazy day at the pool, well, it's not meant to be. And though getting it on may be an Olympian effort in itself, the results may prove revolutionary.
Consider the system's highlights: It has been shown to achieve a 16.6 per cent reduction in full body passive drag, an 11 per cent improvement in a swimmer's oxygen economy, meaning they don't need to work as hard and a 63.4 per cent reduction of force on the goggle, a major factor for pros because the force on some goggles can be equal to having two Coke cans on each lens, Dr. Waller says.
And then there are more practical features, such as the fact that the goggles, shiny numbers that will make you look like you've swum in from the future, provide 180-degree peripheral vision, which anyone doing the backstroke in crowded lanes will surely appreciate.
Combined, the system is a revolutionary product, designed to improve upon Speedo's LZR Racer, which dominated the Beijing Olympics – 86 per cent of all swimming medals were worn by athletes wearing the suit – but that was subsequently banned in 2010 by FINA, international swimming's governing body, for making swimmers more buoyant.
With swimmers no longer allowed to wear polyurethane and neoprene suits during competition, the FASTSKIN3, which spent three years in development, is made predominantly with a fabric called Hydro K-Zone 3D.
"It's a revolutionary new way of making fabric whereby we're able to position varying amounts of Lycra around the body so that we can compress where we want to and not compress where we don't want to," Dr. Waller says.
Although Speedo has not tested the system on non-elite swimmers, there's a chance ordinary people may see a greater improvement in their times than the sport's top athletes, Dr. Waller says. After all, superstars are already working near their peak and will use technology such as the FASTSKIN3 to shave milliseconds off their times, while ordinary people might enjoy a greater advantage from the elite gear.
It's likely that only very serious swimmers will buy the suit, which has a suggested retail price of $395, the goggles ($100) and the cap ($40). But then again, fans of super-star athletes have traditionally been willing to shell out for gear, whether it's a Sidney Crosby devotee who wants to wear his jersey to shinny games or cycling aficionados who paid $5,000 for the Trek Madone that Lance Armstrong rode to win the Tour de France in 2004.
Even if the FASTSKIN3 doesn't prove to be Speedo's hottest seller, it will likely prove to be hugely profitable for the company following the London Games, says Eric Wright, president and executive director of research at Joyce Julius & Associates Inc., an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company that specializes in measuring the scope of sponsorships.
"From a media-exposure standpoint, it has the potential to really make a big splash for them," Mr. Wright says. In 2008, his company looked at Mr. Phelps's financial impact on the brands he was associated with. That included every image of Mr. Phelps wearing the Speedo logo, for instance. The exposure value for Speedo? Just shy of $10-million, Mr. Wright says.
On top of that, every time the suit is discussed or Speedo's name is mentioned during the Games, which is likely to be often, it will strengthen the association between Speedo and swimming in the minds of viewers, increasing the likelihood they'll purchase Speedo gear when they go looking for swimming apparel, even if it's not the supersuit, Mr. Wright adds.
Speedo is no doubt looking forward to an Olympic bump in sales. But it also wants swimmers out there who get in the suit feel to like supermen and superwomen – and, of course, cruise through the water faster than they ever have.
"We hope that people will be inspired to swim fast, and indeed will feel the sensation of swimming fast," Dr. Waller says.